Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Journeys Under Sea and Beyond

As we prepare to return home to our island after a six-week writing sabbatical, I’m fondly remembering our big summer production, “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” and reflecting on the power of “being away.”

Going away and coming home is a huge privilege for most of us, a by-product of the wealth and mobility of our North American culture. How then might we use this privilege to deepen our own consciousness of who we are and what our roles in this big world might be?

For centuries, in different cultures and traditions, journeying has had more of a mythic than an ordinary quality. Journeys are often quests to reach a mystical “holy grail.” Think King Arthur and his knights (about whom we will hear a solstice tale, “The Loathly Bride,” read by Judith at the Opera House’s holiday event December 18); Odysseus; Jonah and the Whale and thus yes . . . Burt Dow, Deep Water Man. In the ongoing tradition of Jungian analysis, these stories and dreams exemplify no less than our own journeys to develop self and perhaps most importantly, with the individual self, community and culture.

But our modern, western culture becomes less and less about self-development (in its most superficial sense, education and the aspiration to continuously improve) almost by the minute. In the U.S., we don’t want to be challenged by the fantastical, alluring mysteries of what we don’t know; we prefer to surround ourselves comfortably only with what our rational brains and senses are already familiar. This is perhaps most evident in our love of national chain stores and restaurants, which make one American place look, taste, and feel just like the next. And as Thomas Friedman recently reported in his satirical column “From WikiChina” (from an imagined Chinese perspective), Americans “travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind.”

“Jonah was unable to speak with sufficient wisdom until he had made a journey under the sea, that is, until he had explored his unconscious,” wrote famed Jungian analyst Joseph Wheelwright more than 30 years ago. What was it, I wonder, that Burt Dow and his Giggling Gull brought back to Deer Isle after evicting themselves from the belly of their own whale? Was it the artistry and creativity Burt discovered there, as he splashed paint like Pollack? McCloskey’s legend of the real man has gone on to give our community gifts for generations.

What gifts do we bring back to our communities when we return home? What will I bring home this week?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Why We All Need a Shake Up Now and Then

Sometimes having the earth move under your feet is what it takes to make healthy change.

Grassroots and urban and community development activist Jane Jacobs knew this well, and here in San Francisco there is a particularly wonderful Jacobs-style parable of such change.

We just spent the morning at the huge and bustling Saturday Farmers' Market here in San Francisco, at the beautiful Ferry Terminal building at the foot of Market Street. The market is one of the nation's largest and most acclaimed, serving a wide variety of farmers and food producers, plus approximately 25,000 customers a week.

The Ferry Terminal building, which famed columnist Herb Caen called "a famous city's most famous landmark," was opened in 1898. It was the transportation focal point for everyone coming to the city from the Gold Rush through the 1930s, when both the city's bridges, the Bay and Golden Gate, were opened to car traffic. The steel frame construction became the largest such foundation for a building over water anywhere in the world--and importantly has survived two major earthquakes, the 1906 and 1989.

What didn't survive the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake is as important to today's vibrancy of the Ferry Terminal building and its markets as what did: the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway. Built across the face of the Ferry Building in 1957 at the height of the nation's car craze, with Eisenhower's highway act and urban and transportation planners such as Robert Moses in full steam, it cast the historic building into obscurity, cutting it off from the city.

Jacobs successfully stopped Moses from building a similarly raised highway through Lower Manhattan (the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX), along Broome Street, in the mid-1960s--but she never had such dramatic help from Mother Nature. Many of Moses' auto-centric designed and driven projects--the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway--divided and separated New York's poor neighborhoods, casting them into the gloom and filth of the expressways' shadows.

The 1989 earthquake so damaged the Embarcadero Freeway that it was completely torn down in 1991 and never rebuilt. The immediate impact on the historic Ferry Building was striking. Increased auto congestion caused the re-institution of many of the cross-bay ferries, and the building, suddenly re-connected and visible to the city, began to come back to life. The renovated building now holds 65,000 square feet of marketplace, with an additional 175,000 sf of premium 2nd and 3rd floor office space. With its unmistakeable clocktower gracing the intersection of Market Street with the Bay and the communities across it, it is once again a bustling central location for the city's residents; and one of the city's most grand and cherished landmarks.

Jane Jacobs is cheering from her grave.

Friday, December 3, 2010

In Praise of the Fierce and Newly Dead: Eve Nardone, 1929-2010

Fierce. Loyal. Passionate. Engaged.

These are the qualities that come to mind when I think of Eve Nardone, who passed away last week, the night before Thanksgiving, at the age of 81 in San Rafael, CA.

It is factually accurate to say Eve was my high school English teacher at Stonington (CT) High School in the late 1970s, but that doesn’t tell the story. Eve was the first person to believe in me as an artist, a writer, and a lesbian. She saw in that 15-year-old the person I was to become, seized that kernel of potential in her teeth and didn’t let go, shaking and hauling it through those difficult high school years when it would have been just as possible to let it go.

She was the first person I came out to.

She was fierce that way, and loyal, and I am thankful every day she was.

She came to Connecticut, and teaching English, from Europe along a route that remains mysterious to me in the way of so many of our most interesting life paths. But there was no mystery around Eve’s intelligence: her mind and speech were incisive, engaged with and passionate about culture and the world, and there were few if any subjects she deigned not to weigh in on (I just found online what may be her most recent, and last? bridge scores, from May of this year).

In addition to teaching a full load of courses, Eve had the passion and energy to mentor the yearbook for many years; to launch a Theater Club and take a full bus load of students to a Broadway show in New York City every year; to take groups of students to England, where she had spent her youth as a Czech refuge from World War II; to moonlight, as many teachers do, selling scrimshaw in a local gift shop. I rarely heard her complain of being tired (although I did hear quite a bit of grumbling about the lack of grammar in students’ writing, grumbling which I carry on, on her behalf, to this day): life fueled her. She loved to travel, to read, to go to the theater, to listen to music: and even had she not done such an excellent job teaching me how to write and understand English literature, the model she set for me in these regards was important enough.

When I first met Eve there was actually quite a bit of doubt as to whom I was to become. I’d known at 14 I was a lesbian (thanks to Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle) and was trying to learn to use my body through girls’ sports, a place I hoped I could fit in. But I was a trumpet-playing bookworm with sketchbooks and notepads always on my person. Sports were a language I worked hard to learn, and one that in many ways made being gay only more visible—and all of us more vulnerable. I wandered into my sophomore year of high school, during the Bicentennial year of 1976, learning to drive; disillusioned by Watergate and Vietnam; hoping for a girlfriend; a little scrappy and hotheaded; and wanting, like all adolescents, to fit in someplace. This combination lead, as it so often does, to disaster. My parents had to haul me out of jail one night when I left several large members of the Westerly, R.I. police force in disarray.

I don’t think there is much question I represented a challenging and interesting project to Eve, and that’s OK: I’d proudly be her project again any day, and every kid should have an adult other than their parents who takes them on as their personal (and not necessarily school) project. I’m not at all sure what alerted her to my potential, but shortly after the police incident (while it seemed as though I was still wandering around the football field with a hangover) and before I knew what was happening I was an artist for our yearbook, the Pawmystonian, creating pen-and-ink sketches and drawings of our school mascot: anthropomorphized bears. I was hanging around at Eve’s house on weekends, eating frozen fried chicken with her and stumbling into my first girlfriend. I fully believed I had wrecked my life forever by my stoned brawling, but Eve pulled me through that year and into the next; now yearbook Art Editor . . . now Eve’s grammar class . . . now Theater Club . . . now house and cat-sitting for Eve . . . now Honors English . . . now yearbook Editor . . . now Eve’s nomination of me for the Mary Nania Award for Altruistic and Inspiring Leadership . . . now Bowdoin College . . . now taking the graphic arts skills I learned at the yearbook into my first newspaper job . . . now editing and writing for a national journal and small press . . . now working for the Village Voice newspaper . . . now helping to found and operate for more than 12 years a nonprofit theater serving the small New England community of—Stonington, ME.

Can you feel Eve’s hand in all of this? I do and always will. So much of what she taught me—from the difference between “which” and “that,” to how to lay out a page, to how to appreciate scotch responsibly and with pleasure, to how to think clearly, to how to easily and swiftly write clear, simple sentences, to how to take great pleasure in the act of writing—lives on in me today.

I lost touch with Eve after she retired and moved to California; she had always wanted the warmth, and to be near her children. My own writing and world-making consumed me at the time, and I let her go. I always regretted having done so, and was delighted last year when a mutual friend gave me her contact info. All too briefly, I was able to be in touch with her again, to tell her how much she meant to me. But it was too late for us to share any further experiences; she was losing her battle with cancer, and I was too far away.

Despite my sins (in what I have done, in what I have failed to do), I’ve had grace on my side: I have continued to have people in my life—mentors, friends, lovers, and colleagues—who remind me of Eve. That twinkle in her eye, slightly mischievous and always sparkling, deliberately exposing to you the fire that glowed inside of her; a twinkle you can see even in very recent photos of her. The fierceness of her loyalty once you were hers; the sharp, persistent scrawl of her red pen; the fullness with which she approached life in what she clearly understood to be a magical world.

Thank you, Eve Nardone. Thank you.

(Special thanks to Kelly Cordner for keeping me in touch with Eve; to Larry Bates for this photo; and to Eve’s daughter, Laurie, for being so kind to me during the days immediately preceding Eve’s death)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Desert Winds

There's something about dry.

My people are Yankees: i.e., east coast people and before that western Europeans.

We don't really know what to do with dry. We know humid.

The Southern California desert I'm currently writing from--Palm Springs, to be exact--is dry 354 (!) days a year. Dry and bright. Clear. The edges of the glorious date palms crisply glistening light against blue sky and brown hills.

But the dry desert brightness is only part of what fascinates about this place. Inhabited forever by the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, who remain Palm Springs largest landowners, it is a place that reminds one daily that heaven is right here on earth (according to local legend, it received its current name when a Spanish explorer referred to it as "the palm of God's hand"). Grapefruits growing in the front yard, oranges in the back, etc. More recently for design fans it has become known as "an oasis of modernism in the desert" and some of the 1950s-60s architecture, objects, and decor are definitely swinging.

That's when the place really took off for white people--the 1950s and 1960s--when Hollywood stars suddenly discovered its proximity to Los Angeles and began to flock here in droves for drinks, golf, etc. Frank Sinatra lead the way with his "Rat Pack." Dean Martin, Cary Grant, Debbie Reynolds and yes, Dinah Shore--whose legacy remains in the annual spring golf tourney and "women's weekend," a.k.a. the largest lesbian bash in the country which bears her name--all owned homes here.

The stars got distracted and began to leave in the late 1970s at a time when Palm Springs threatened to become the Fort Lauderdale of spring break California. Now its retiree heaven and really, why not? I know we who live on Deer Isle, Maine extol the high quality of life in Maine, but during the winter its got nothing on Palm Springs. Yep, there are definitely more people and traffic here than in my very rural home; but many of us are crafty enough to avoid traffic and people when we want and need to.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Springs is that it manages, despite the excesses of second home owners and tourists, to retain a somewhat down-at-heels feel--something which makes it a sister of sorts to Deer Isle, although in truth many lobstermen make more than the average median incomes for Palm Springs. The median income for a household in the Springs was $35,973 and for a family $45,318. The per capita income for the city was $25,957. These figures obviously don't include the second home owners. About 11.2% of families and 15.1% of the population are below the poverty line. Important lesson: beware, communities, of creating economies dependent solely on the tourism/service sectors.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bloody Bloody Populism

He's an orphan at 13 and an Indian-killing rock star soon after. And the people LOVE Andrew Jackson.

Why not? In the Public Theater's musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" now on Broadway, like any rock star Andrew is a sexy, angry, bloody mess who seeks our adoration. He urges us not to think about what he says and does, but just to love it. And we do, in all our contradictory glory: don't kill the indians, but don't let them live near us; tell the federal government to go screw itself, but wait! we want its money; etc.

We are supposed to find his adolescent rages and impulsiveness attractive, and many do in the same way Maine voters supported Paul LePage ("I'll tell President Obama to go to hell") or NY voters Carl Paladino . . . or Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh . . .

Why is Andrew so angry? "Life sucks . . . for me in particular," he sings, and doesn't it seem everyone has a chip on their shoulder these days? Unemployment is too high, taxes are too high, the cost of gas is too high, not everyone can afford a McMansion . . . it is a pretty tough life we've got going on here in these United States, but what are any of us willing to do to fix it? So we throw the bums out, be they Democrat or Republican, again and again and again because no one can really solve these problems without asking the people to do something--stop driving SUVs? stop watering our lawns and filling our swimming pools?--ourselves.

Obama would shudder at the relevance of the show's anthem to his Presidency: "And we’re gonna take this country back for people like us, who don’t just think about things.”

Because as most of us regretfully know, the problem is not in our politicians but in us, the electorate. "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" brings that point home in 90 minutes of highly entertaining irony of the type seldom seen on Broadway.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Revisiting the Bear


I walked to the edge of gray ledge just off the Appalachian Trail and there, 36 miles away on a brilliantly clear November day, was the toothy profile of New York City glittering at the end of the Hudson River.

Bear Mountain is and always has been a kind of miracle to me and many others. Opened in 1913 just a shout up the Palisades from the clanging, smoking engine of New York City it is both living evidence of the culture of philanthropy of a different time, and of the awareness, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, that people had to get beyond the noisy environs of the city and into the "great outdoors." Fully launched with a huge gift of both money and land from Mary Averell Harriman, whose husband was the President of the Union Pacific Railroad, Bear Mountain is another of the many institutions which grace our lives thanks to the philanthropy of the great industrialists and robber barons.

I've hiked here, across the section of the AT and up the High Tor and through the Timp Pass and over Dunderhead Mountain, over the last 25 years with two of my own and several of my friends' dogs, the latest my friend Karen's 6-month old puppy, Bessie. The trails and my own past are alive for me with the golden happiness of Jessie; and the speedy alertness of Tosca (who was often just a black dot disappearing quickly over the oak leaf-strewn hills in pursuit of a deer) and her best friend Indy.

So up the familiar trail, which I've both hiked and cross country skied, to Doodletown we went, past the old reservoir and the town that the state claimed by eminent domain and existed there as recently as 1965 yet is now nothing but brush and historic markers. Out to Iona Island past the briny, reed-filled marshes. And finally down 9W back to the city, stopping for a black-and-tan at Sheeran's in Tomkins Cove before racing down the New York State Thruway and back into the city.

A perfect fall day for a former urbanite.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't Allow Your Fear to Vote

One person, one vote: this is the rock of our democracy. It’s therefore very important this fall not to allow your individual vote as a Citizen to be cast by your Fear.

Our two party system—and our desire to approach politics as a football game rather than “one person, one vote”--is broken. This is glaringly evident not only in the inability of our federal and state governments to get real work done that improves our lives; but in our public support for independent candidates—not one, but three qualified to be on the Maine gubernatorial ballot—and for the Tea Party movement.

When a system breaks, those who comprise and benefit from that system—in this case, the Democrats and the Republicans—are never the people to turn to to fix it.

Yet this fall, Maine’s Democrat and Republican parties would have us believe that voting for an independent candidate is in fact a vote for the opposing party. They want us to cast our vote for their candidates not because we feel they are the best, but out of fear of the other guy.

It is important for voters to recognize that strategies based on fear are always created out of weakness. Telling someone “A vote for Cutler is a vote for LePage” or vice versa is a strategy closer to bullying than to a useful political strategy, and is an indicator of the truth: the candidates selected by Democrats and Republicans in their primaries are not strong enough to win the general election. Neither LePage nor Mitchell offers policies Maine voters can honestly and whole-heartedly support. It’s a shame that the core Democrats and Republicans who held sway in their primary elections were not attentive to the state’s realities and needs for integrity and substantive change in selecting their candidates. Now they are reduced to threatening voters that our vote for an independent is in fact one for their (dreaded) opposition. If you are an independent Mainer like me, this strategy makes you never want to vote for a Democrat OR Republican ever again!

And it’s just not so. Each of us is able to evaluate the policies, histories, and proposed actions of the candidates and select the best person to be the next governor for the state of Maine. Your vote is a vote for the best candidate, period.

Of the five gubernatorial candidates, only one has put forth specific proposal after proposal for ways to fix our state’s problems and move in a different direction: Eliot Cutler. Cutler has also shown, in the last few weeks, that he is the candidate on the ascendency and the only candidate who can pull both Republican AND Democratic votes and satisfy the central demands of Maine’s voters for integrity and change. He is on the rise, and the only thing we have to defeat us from having the best governor for Maine is our fear itself.

I believe Maine voters are too tough and independent to allow ourselves to be bullied into voting for a candidate who is not the best person for the job, or to allow our fear to hold sway in the voting booth. Your vote for Eliot Cutler is a vote for the best candidate for governor. You know you want to.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Voting in Tomorrow's Primary: An Opinionated Guide

Check it out: Maine has more candidates running for Governor than ever before. This is a good sign if you consider it a reflection of engagement, although it is probably more another sign of the current discontent with governmental status quo . . . and the bad news is that, in a recent poll, 42% of Maine's likely voters could not name ONE of the 11 candidates running! Let's get caught up on the issues today, my friends, and get ourselves to the polls tomorrow.

For those of you who have asked, I'll tell: based on my involvement with educational and economic development issues at both local and state levels, I am voting for Steve Rowe. I've had the opportunity to work with Steve and believe his vision for education as the basis of our state's future success is critically important. Steve prioritizes early childhood and creative educational programs based on research which shows what a difference these make in creating future citizens. He is a get it done leader rather than a more provocative legislator such as Libby Mitchell (and no, she doesn't get my vote just because she is a woman). After 8 years of governance by a legislator, I'm ready to move toward stronger leadership. I also believe Mitchell more than Rowe will split the vote with the indy's, including Elliot Cutler, leaving room for a Republican victory. Vote Rowe!

It is sad in this election to be losing both our region's state legislators, Hannah Pingree and Dennis Damon, to term limits. Both Pingree and Damon are true leaders unafraid to take stands and stick to them on controversial issues. Hannah has lead the way in environmental health reforms for Maine, and Dennis introduced and continues to support Maine's marriage equity legislation. We owe them both a lot of THANKS for their tireless and unswerving leadership.

The island's own Walter Kumiega is running unopposed for Pingree's seat. Walter's heart is always in the right place, and let's keep our fingers crossed he becomes more willing to deal with conflict and to provide leadership on contested issues when he reaches Augusta than he has been as co-chair of our school committee.

The primary election is important in filling Damon's state Senate seat as two Democrats seek the nomination: Jim Schatz of Blue Hill and Skip Greenlaw of . . .well, also of Blue Hill. Skip is a long-time Stonington resident who has been residing in Blue Hill over the winter but isn't copping to that, which bodes ill for any other stances requiring honesty in his candidacy. Additionally, Skip has been a leader of our local school committee for more than 20 years and the results are not good: our high school was correctly named one of the 10 worst performing in Maine earlier this year, and we have little community engagement with the local process because of Skip's off-putting leadership style. This is the record on which he is running? Can anyone say accountability? Schatz has a lot of integrity and is the kind of quiet leader who is not in it for his own ego but to get important issues done. Schatz gets my vote tomorrow.

And finally: vote NO on Question #1 tomorrow and YES for the bond issues. The bond issues are important economic development items: click here for the full text. Question #1 is another of the "People's Veto" phenomenon, an attempt to confuse the public and overthrow sound tax reform legislation our reps have already passed. Let representative democracy do its work, study the issues, debate them in public, and make informed decisions! Question #1 asks you to overturn existing tax-cut legislation--don't be confused! And what we really should be voting on is a repeal of the People's Veto legislation, so we don't have to continually set our state back with these so-called "people's" (read: special interest) referenda.

Feel free to disagree. Most importantly, get out and vote tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Celebrating Prom--and the SATs

May is a big month for our juniors!

In Deer Isle-Stonington, May is about the junior prom. Distinct from the same archetypal event in many other locations, our island prom is a joyous community-wide event supported and attended by young and old alike; one that celebrates our juniors and their connections to family and community as well as their “coming of age.” Even as I write this, student advisors, mentors, and parents are spending long hours at school painting and building, preparing the gym (and themselves) for this annual event.

And on Saturday May 1, a week before the prom, our juniors are expected to attend an event of equal importance to their futures: the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or SATs. Because this is a relatively new event without the long communal connections of the prom, our students may not receive the same amount of active, visible encouragement and support for this event as they need to succeed.

While the SATs themselves are not new, their importance for all students—and maybe especially for those who think they may not be pursuing additional education after high school—is.

In the past only a select group of students were expected to graduate from high school with “college ready” educations, defined as the ability to successfully solve language and math problems at a certain level of proficiency. In today’s economy and job market, here on the island as much as off, ALL high school graduates need these skills: and the SATs are an important measure of how well our schools are providing students with the education they deserve to succeed after high school.

Additionally, high school students thinking they may not attend college often discover further education at a 2- or 4-year college, community college, or technical school is required to make a decent living in today’s job market. Given the impact of global economic forces on our lobster fishery, and our hopes to continually strengthen opportunities in our year-round community for our young people, we could be encouraging all of our students to aspire to some sort of further education.

And so this May, let’s be “loud and proud” in celebrating and supporting not one but TWO milestone events for our high school juniors: on May 1 the SATs, and on May 8 the prom.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Precious" at the Opera House

Many questions can be raised about our showing of the film "Precious: based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" at the Opera House as part of our Alt-Movie Series this week. Why show a film about inner-city tragedy and dysfunction in our rural hamlet? Why show a film which could possibly further negative stereotypes of African-Americans in the nation's whitest state, where few have access to everyday encounters with racial and ethnic minorities? Why show films which detail poverty, abuse and their effects at all?

Because "Precious" is a complicated, beautifully made film which shows the potential impacts of poverty and abuse in ALL of our communities. It is a story which must be told--as Sapphire knew when she published the book on which it is based, "Push," in 1996. “Ralph Ellison spoke of an invisible man, but girls like Precious are our invisible young women—not seen by their own people let alone white society,” says Sapphire.

The character of Claireece “Precious Jones” Sapphire created and whom director Lee Daniels, along with producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, faithfully renders is so deeply human and fully realized, not only in her misery but in her imaginative, thoughtful processes, that it is impossible for any but the most pessimistic and politically orthodox critics (of which there have been many, both of the book and now of the film) to not be dumb-struck with empathy and compassion for her story. As Sapphire says, her story and this film are "for all the precious girls" in all of our communities. Let's make them visible, and let's all care enough to take action--as so many do in this film, from school principals to teachers to social workers--to offer them the love they deserve and need to chart their own courses from misery.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why STREB?

I've been cross-posting this week from NYC on our Opera House Arts' blog, Curtain Tales. If you don't already follow that, keep an eye on it for the latest words related to our work at OHA and mission, Incite Art, Create Community!

Choreographer--or I think I'd better say movement artist--Elizabeth Streb was one of three panelists on the opening plenary, facilitated by OHA's "our own" critic-in-residence Alicia Anstead, for APAP 2010. Presenting between our lugubrious new NEA chairman, Rocco Landesmann, whose comments re support for artists waxed so spurious one could only yawn; and my fellow Bowdoin College grad Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky (download his app for your iPhone and become your own DJ), Streb--ice-pick thin with a stand-up shock of died black hair at 59--brought the session to life with her remarks on the importance of--well, yeah--movement.

Streb showed a video message she had created when asked if she would send a message to newly-elected President Obama last year. After some hesitation, she did it. Her message is: there is one simple solution to solving the problems you face--war in Afghanistan, an economic recession, a need to overhaul our country's health and education systems. That solution is movement. If you, Mr. President, insist that every American must jump up and down three times every morning, turn around, and throw their arms up in a giant X--slowly but surely our problems would be solved.

It's a dramatic way to make an important point: the human body is a kinetic (i.e., movement) machine, and we as Americans simply don't move enough to function as well intellectually, emotionally, economically, and politically as we need to to face the current challenges the world presents to us. And moving with consciousness through the artistic discipline of dance--and Streb might argue, especially highly physical dance of the type she practices, which can veer toward the NFL--might take us to places we never before knew to be possible.

So, people, let's do it! Stand up and jump up and down three times, now and every morning. Spin around and throw your arms up into the air in a giant X! Let's move it. The new decade is on. -- Linda

Getting Serious About Creativity in the Classroom

I've been cross-posting this week from NYC on our Opera House Arts' blog, Curtain Tales. If you don't already follow that, keep an eye on it for the latest words related to our work at OHA and mission, Incite Art, Create Community!

Following on my concept of "the whole new mind for a whole new decade" posted earlier this week, Thursday afternoon I helped to lead an Education Leaders Institute (ELI) meeting in Augusta. The focus is to create a team of innovation leaders from around the state to re-design public education--moving it from the WHAT is being taught to the HOW of students learning . . . with a focus on ensuring that creativity, imagination, and innovation are primary learning methods for the new century.

This all hooks together with OHA's Kennedy Center Partners in Education program with our local schools, which helps teachers learn to integrate artistic processes and disciplines into their classroom teaching to advance the creativity of HOW their students are learning literacy, math, and interpersonal skills.

Another key piece of this in Maine is the MLTI laptop program, which in many communities has been a huge gift for how their students are learning and taking off with the innovative skills demanded by our changing economy. Deer Isle hasn't done as well with MLTI as we might, and therefore we are including technology integration as an art form--digital media arts integration--in our Kennedy Center offerings. The importance of the MLTI program to creativity brought Apple's Jim Moulton to our Thursday ELI meeting. Jim is a fantastically innovative thinker, especially around education. Check out this piece he wrote back when he blogged for Edutopia's Spiral Notebook, "It's Time to Get Serious About Creativity in the Classroom." -- Linda

Monday, January 4, 2010

For the New Decade: A Whole New Mind

I see from my Facebook page early this morning that everyone is off to the usual new year’s resolutions: exercise and weight loss.

But what about our brains?

Some of the most interesting research and policy recommendations to emerge from the decade just past have to do not with the benefits of physical exercise, but rather with the social, political, economic and yes, personal benefits of understanding and exercising our brains.

I therefore propose we consider the value of pursuing whole new minds for this new decade.

Both brain research and first-hand documentation of the experience of stroke victims, such as brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s, have increasingly brought us the news that our emotions, behaviors, learning capacities—and resulting social and economic successes—are as much about choices we make, and educational opportunities we are offered, as about innate genetic or biological factors.

In short, the ways we learn to understand the world and to express ourselves are the result not of uncontrollable tissue but of the conscious development and nurturing of specific neural pathways: pathways which throughout our lives can be re-shaped and re-developed, even in old age, even after devastating brain injuries or stroke. Having trouble holding a job because you can’t control your anger? You can learn to consciously re-direct the habitual flow of neurons when you react to something, and change your seemingly uncontrollable responses. Are fears and anxiety keeping you from the family life or career you want to have? The focus of most meditative practices is to shift the locus of understanding from our task-oriented left brain to our right, which experiences connectedness and wholeness and can reduce the power of our daily anxieties.

Alert educators and parents have known for some time that intelligence and achievement are not all about biological I.Q., but rather about the stimuli the brain is offered—say, the number of words to which an infant is regularly exposed; the aspirations and expectations that are set for and by us; and the encouragement we receive for different types of behaviors. But how much of this new brain knowledge, moving us away from the old worlds of I.Q. tests, has made its way into our public policy, public schools curricula, and, more importantly, our daily lives?

For adults, integrating current knowledge of brain development into our lives and the lives of our children can take several forms.

On behalf of our children, researchers increasingly recognize that our public education systems are too “left brain” focused: our classrooms are good (sometimes) at teaching facts and basic math and literacy—all functions governed in the left hemispheres of our brains—and much less good at teaching problem solving and the type of creative and innovative thinking being demanded by the U.S.’s position in the global economy. Teaching creativity and innovation requires development of the right hemispheres of our brains: sectors most effectively developed through learning in and through artistic practices (the performing and visual arts). Best-selling writers Daniel Pink (author of the recent Drive and A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, from where I borrowed my title) and Thomas Friedman (Hot, Flat, and Crowded) have been consistently and loudly eloquent on this subject and its importance to U.S. competitiveness in global markets: but are we working to change our local schools, and parenting, accordingly?

And with the new understanding that the brain is in fact a lifelong learner—plastic and flexible throughout our lives, “allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” according to professor Dr. Kathleen Taylor in a recent New York Times Education Life story—are we adults keeping our brains and communities as healthy as we might be? Research shows our more mature brains hunger for learning that is not merely about taking in more stuff, but rather that which challenges our perceptions of the world: a kind of stretching of the brain beyond its comfort zone that breaks it away from established connections, thereby encouraging the growth of new pathways. “If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections,” Dr. Taylor concludes.

Taking new routes to work; learning new languages; having conversations with those different from us as well as those who share our world views; experiencing the arts and ensuring our children do as well; meditating: these are new year’s resolutions which will, in the long term and as importantly as physical fitness, benefit our national health as well as our personal well-being. Whole new minds for the new decade.